We hoped off the plane at
LAX BNA with a dream, and our cardigans six suitcases containing everything we owned in August of 2012. After years of dreaming about experiencing life in America, we had finally made it.
Moving away from your parents and hometown to go to college is overwhelming for any young adult, but moving to a different country becomes a different level of overwhelming. You’ve probably spent so many months dealing with international college applications and all of the paperwork that goes along with them, that actually being here probably feels surreal. Now that you are finally arriving at your destination for the next four years, it’s easy to find yourself thinking, “So now what?” Well, we don’t claim to be experts on the topic, but we can at the very least claim we have “been there, done that.” The following are some pieces of advice we hope that you will find valuable as you embark on your American college journey. Enjoy.
Don’t skip your international orientation. Most schools will offer orientation specifically for international students where they will get to mingle with their foreign peers and learn some random (and potentially important) stuff from your international student adviser.
“Being late to my orientation meant that I didn’t learn about the on-campus job opportunities for Spanish speakers. Millions of dollars in minimum wage income were lost for me that year.” – A
“If I recall correctly, I didn’t go to our orientation at all. I think it may have been at a camp? I wish I’d taken the chance to get to know the other international kids, even though I didn’t feel that foreign as Canadian.” – E
Meet with your school’s international student adviser. They will need to make copies of your passport and other miscellaneous documents. Plus, she or he will be your ally the next four years, between getting approvals for different job opportunities to helping you get a social security number. Having them in your corner from the get-go will be a huge plus.
Don’t be terrified by the over-excitement of American students during regular orientation. We still don’t understand why people were so excited that we were moving in. It’s probably an American thing. Don’t be scared. They don’t bite. Orientation week is also the best time to make new friends, and being an international student is a great conversation starter.
Avoid shopping at the bookstore. Make sure you know your schedule ahead of time so you can order your textbooks off of Amazon. If you can’t register for classes until a few days before they start, that’s okay. Most professors won’t care if you don’t have your books the first few classes. Textbooks are almost always cheaper when you buy them online… Chegg and Amazon rentals are the best. Sometimes your professors won’t even have you use your textbooks, so it may be worth asking them about this before ordering the really expensive ones.
“I spent over $700 on books my first semester and only got about $50 back when I sold them at the end. Also, if you have a hacker friend, you might be able to get some free copies off the internet. Shh.” – A
“I may or may not be the friend Alessandra is talking about… haha. No comment.” – E
Don’t get health insurance if you don’t have to. Your health care plan from your home country may actually work in the United States – make sure to ask your parents or your provider about this ahead of time. If you don’t have international coverage, then see if your school offers health insurance plans. Your international advisor should be able to help you figure out what is the most cost effective. Don’t mess around with skipping on health insurance… it’s important, and being underinsured can put you in a bad spot down the road.
“My first few years of school, I paid about $1000 on health insurance, only to realize the insurance I had from my country was international and worked in the US. Ouch.” – A
“I actually thought to check into this ahead of time (and by that, I mean my parents did…), and realized that most Canadian health care plans will work in the US. Good thing I opted out of the high-priced school plans.” – E
Get an on-campus job. This is the **only** kind of part-time work you are allowed to do on your visa, excluding a limited amount of major-related work experience. You will probably only make minimum wage, but those 5 hours a week teaching at the language center can add up to $400 a semester, and it’s also a great way to get plugged in to your campus.
“Don’t forget to ask the international adviser if your school has a language tutoring center – this can be a great place to find a job if you speak other languages besides English.” – A
“If you’re uncultured like me and only speak English, most schools also have a wealth of positions available in places like the library or admissions office. These are great places to make friends with the faculty, and meet students outside of your college.” – E
Make friends that have cars. Odds are that you won’t have your own car (or even drivers license) as a freshman from another country. Friends that can drive are a must for grocery nights and late night ice cream cravings, not to mention airport runs and weekend trips.
Take advantage of online shopping. It is inevitable that even if your parents take you on 25 runs to Bed Bad & Beyond during move-in, you will realized that you forgot to buy something essential… like toothpaste. Or 25 packs of ramen. Don’t panic. Spend more than $35 on Amazon.com and the shipping will be free, plus Amazon Prime offers discounted student memberships, with six FREE months, which will give you free shipping on almost everything!
Do not let your relatives back home take advantage of online shopping. If you’re anything like us, the US probably has much better shopping selection and prices than where you grew up. This is great news for you, and your family will probably also think that it is great news for them. Our warning to you… unless you want to take 500 trips to the mail center to pick up your mom’s late-night online fashion shopping spree, avoid giving out your American address to family and friends at all costs.
“Trust me. I am a victim of shopaholic family members.” – A
“I am a victim of carrying her shopaholic family member’s packages back to the dorms.” – E
Get an American debit card. Using your debit card from your home country is not practical long-term – you will lose money in international fees, and on the exchange rate. Most banks offer special debit cards for students with small or no deposits. Make sure you pick a bank with multiple locations in your city. Or even better, one with an ATM on campus. You don’t want to be stuck with one ATM in the entire city.
Get an American cell phone number, with international add-ons. Just like your debit card, using your phone number from back home will cost you way more in fees and extra constraints than what it’s worth. If you are attached to your current phone, you can pay to get it unlocked at most cell phone retailers, and buy a SIM card that you can use in the US. Most providers will have low-cost packages that will still allow you to call and text home, and you can even switch back to your old SIM card when you go home to save money on roaming.
Complain about the drinking age. It sucks. Nothing you can do about it. There is probably a bigger taboo on drinking than what you’re used to here – make sure to avoid posting pictures of yourself drinking on social media because it can hurt future job and scholarship opportunities.
“The drinking age in Canada is 19, and since I was 17 when I left for school I never got the chance to enjoy it. What’s up with that?” – E
Join a student organization. American college students seem to have an incredible innate ability to make friends. If you find yourself alone in your room multiple times a week, join a student organization or club. You’ll find a group of people with similar interests that you might be able to connect with. Plus, if it’s career oriented, you can add it to your resume. Both of us found big opportunities for work experience through clubs we joined on campus.
Take your time finding your crew. Don’t rush into hanging out with people you don’t really like. Friendships take time. It’s okay to feel out of place for a little bit – your first year is a great time to meet lots of different people and see who sticks!
Create and maintain your resume. Otherwise known as a CV, this will be a key for landing jobs, internships, and scholarships. You never know when it’ll come in handy. Make sure you update it every semester, adding your new achievements and experience – but still keep it to one page.
“If you have nothing to put on it yet, it’s okay. You can always add that fake internship working for your dad’s company…” – A
Find an internship. Most schools won’t let your intern for credit until you’re a Junior (depending on your major), but you can always find some internships at smaller companies that don’t pay or require credit. It’s the best way to get experience when you’re not quite ready for the bigger leagues.
“I had an internship literally every semester that I was in college, and over the summers. This has been key in standing out from my classmates, and convincing people to hire me despite my weird work status.” – E
Work your butt off. Us international peeps are at a disadvantage compared to our American peers. Our foreign status makes employers a bit scared and confused. Be so good at what you do, that when the time comes to get a job, employers will be able to overlook your foreignness and be blown away with how amazing your are. Worked for the both of us.